- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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With a 1-8 record and prospects bleak for getting a Big Ten victory, Indiana can only hope for better things in the future.
In some ways, that future has already begun.
A youth movement is in full effect in Bloomington, for better or worse. On Saturday versus Northwestern, the Hoosiers did three things no other FBS team in 2011 has done, according to the school. They started 12 freshmen. They started eight true freshmen. And they had seven freshmen start on defense.
IU first-year head coach Kevin Wilson said he didn't simply throw in the towel on the season and start grooming players for next year.
"They're truly the best guys," he said. "They're practicing the best."
And that tells you a lot about the challenge facing Wilson. It's one thing to play some young guys. Just look at Indiana's opponent this week, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have inserted true freshmen into key roles like quarterback Braxton Miller and receiver Devin Smith, while mixing in plenty of other fresh faces. But they also are surrounded by battle-tested veterans and leaders.
The Hoosiers are perilously short on leadership. When I asked Wilson on Tuesday about his upperclassmen who were leading the way for the youngsters, he didn't need to speak in generalities. He gave a short list of the upperclassmen who are doing so, which included senior tight end Max Dedmond, senior offensive linemen Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald, senior linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum and junior defensive linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black. And that's where he stopped.
"From there it kind of falls down to the freshmen," Wilson said. "We don't have much in between there."
The lack of senior leadership became even more evident this week when star receiver Damarlo Belcher, expected to be a key player on this season's team, was dismissed from the program after serving a suspension last week. Wilson said he tried to develop some senior leadership in the first few weeks after he took the job last winter.
"We didn't do a good job, in hindsight," he said. "We had some seniors who maybe didn't have things go their way or maybe didn't buy into our system. They were used to doing things a certain way."
So Wilson has gone young. Real young. He has already started 11 true freshmen, six redshirt freshmen and 10 sophomores this season. There have been some nice success stories in there, like promising true freshman quarterback Tre Roberson, sophomore transfer Stephen Houston at running back and freshman safety Mark Murphy. Wilson says it's not a matter of just playing his guys instead of those he inherited; he points out that he didn't actually recruit many of the current freshmen.
But at least he likes the looks of his young players, many of whom were in the first class recruited after Indiana upgraded its football facilities.
"I think it was a more competitive recruiting class," he said. "And the skill set of that freshman class is a little bit better maybe than some of the other classes."
The Hoosiers have some young talent. More upperclassmen leadership to guide them would be very helpful. But they may have to find their own way toward a better future.